A bill to establish a Universal School Meals Program has been introduced in Congress in the United States, a move that could improve school attendance and affect student health. The Bill, sponsored by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN, 5th District) and Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), can make school meals free to all schoolchildren. The Bill also promises to address lunch debt, increase funding for school meals, and improving summer and after school feeding programs.
Currently, universal school meals are only available in the U.S. through the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). To qualify, at least 40 percent of students in a school must be eligible for free meals. The Universal School Meals Program Act will make breakfast, lunch, and after school snacks free for every public and nonprofit private school student, regardless of family or community income.
“There are simply too many children whose families are struggling to make ends meet that do not qualify for free school meals,” Crystal FitzSimmons, director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), tells Food Tank. More than 75 percent of schools in the U.S. report having students that possess school lunch debt, according to the School Nutrition Association.
For advocates like FitzSimmons, the prospect of a Universal School Meals Program is exciting because it allows families to focus on expenses beyond food. “It allows families’ limited incomes to cover housing and other costs,” FitzSimmons tells Food Tank.
The cost of school lunch extends beyond financial strain. Many schools attempt to shame students and their families into paying their lunch debts. Practices range from stamping children’s hands to threatening foster care placement. The Universal School Meals Program Act will not only make any form of lunch shaming illegal, but it would also reimburse schools with outstanding lunch debt.
Another provision of the Universal School Meals Program Act can make the Summer Meals Service Program and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) universal for U.S. schoolchildren, similar to school meals.
Many children, especially in rural parts of the country, do not have access to summer meal sites though, FitzSimmons tells Food Tank. To prevent families from having to spend more money on food during the summer than during the rest of the year, the Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Program provides extra food purchasing money. The Universal School Meals Program Act could add an extra US$60 to each child’s EBT card.
Free meals at school are also linked with academic and health outcomes. Universal free meals have beneficial effects on test scores and other performance measures, according to Will Davis, an economics Ph.D. candidate at Georgia State University.
However, Davis has concerns about how school meals affect health outcomes. The current literature examining indicators of health, such as weight and body mass index varies across age, sex, race, and location. “While the existing literature suggests that [a universal meals program] improves educational outcomes for the average student, this may come at the cost of increased probabilities of overweight and obesity,” Davis tells Food Tank.
“In addition to providing meals for free, we also need to find out how to make nutritious school meals attractive to students,” says Davis. The Universal School Meals Program Act increases the school meal reimbursement rate. It also provides financial incentives to schools that source locally. The Bill does not directly address the nutritional value of food served in schools.
“It is unlikely that Congress will create a Universal School Meals Program in the upcoming [Child Nutrition Reauthorization], but we are hopeful that they will continue to take steps in that direction, such as bolstering community eligibility so more high-need schools can implement the provision,” FitzSimmons tells Food Tank. She also notes though, that several Democratic presidential candidates have proposed universal school meals, “so there may be an opportunity in the near future.”